Contested Cities and the Fallacy of Unilateralism

May 1, 2000
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Scott A. Bollens

The emotional scars and physical and psychological separation one faces in politically contested cities such as Jerusalem, Belfast, Johannesburg, Nicosia, and Sarajevo present us with urban characteristics that all-including North American-cities share: fear, separation, exclusivity, and denial. We divide here, too, but history, territoriality, and religion have less tangible effect on us. Rather, we build walls to protect us from past histories and those basic human instincts that these cities must deal with daily.

Although different, cities like Belfast, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Nicosia, and Sarajevo share a common sorrow. Their citizens struggle daily for coexistence in the midst of intense and sometimes violent conflict. The extreme physical manifestations of hatred seen in these cities provide a window into the role of urban policy vis-a-vis ethnicity for all cities.

In Jerusalem, despite the constant feeling of tension on the streets, I experience a sense of intimacy shared by Jews and Palestinians, akin to a war between brothers in a long family battle, a knowing about each other amidst conflict. I hear progressive Israeli voices in Jerusalem that stress the need for some mutual accommodation with their Arab co-residents. Yet, they are tired and frustrated, weighed down and ultimately captured by the historical consciousness of the Jew in the 20th century.

I meet Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and now a prolific author on city development and politics, in the serene setting of his peaceful flat in the Talbieh neighborhood of West Jerusalem. He is sulky, depressed, tired, and thoughtful. Benvenisti was chief deputy under mayor Teddy Kollek, who held power in the city from 1965 until 1993. As a Labor politician, Kollek publicly advocated fair treatment of Arab residents and mutual co-existence of Jews and Palestinians. Yet, during his tenure, Jewish-Arab spending ratios reflected gross inequalities in public funding for roads, water, sewers, and other urban infrastructure. Benvenisti himself recalls bitterly that goals pertaining to social justice in the city were not carried out.

Despite current mayor Ehud Olmert’s stern and unaccommodating stance that “Jerusalem was, never ceased to be, continues to be, and will forever remain the undivided capital of only the state of Israel and the Jewish people,” his administration is making an effort to narrow Jewish-Arab spending disparities. Especially in anticipation of the negotiations over the status of Jerusalem, the Olmert administration has been cognizant of the potentially negative effects of current service and spending differentials. As such, current municipal efforts constitute a political tactic to strengthen Israel’s hold over Jerusalem by positioning the municipality as benign caretaker of its Arab residents. In Jerusalem, Jews want to control, or “unify” East Jerusalem while also wanting to maintain cognitive distance from it as an Arab place. Penetration and Jewish-Arab proximity occur at the same time as both sides say they want residential separation.

There are times in divided cities when one is able to break though the seriousness of conflict and the roles that people play amidst contention to find underneath it all soft and pliable souls who desire re-connection and re-integration. Division-whether it is physical or psychological-is an extremely difficult emotion that spawns hatred, grief, denial, depression, and forgiveness. At Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, I meet Albert Aghazarian, a lecturer in history and director of public relations for the campus. With the rugged, mustachioed face of an aggressive debater, he is noncommittal and evasive, using personal anecdotes to diverge from our conversation. He speaks of Israeli character and politics as if the Israeli was a brother who had misbehaved his whole life. When we meet a second time, he is friendly, vulnerable, and self-reflective. Thinking back on the many individuals I have talked to makes me want to both cry over our ability to hurt one another and celebrate the human soul and its ability to persevere amid the trials of hatred. One gains much greater faith in the human spirit and less confidence in the ability of political leaders.

In the end, one learns in Jerusalem about what can and cannot be achieved through political power supported by military strength. Israeli policy has likely strengthened the ability to control Jerusalem politically, yet it has weakened Israel’s moral and authentic hold on the city. “Jews have Jerusalem but increasingly cannot use it in its entirety,” asserts Robin Twite, director of a conflict management project at Hebrew University. Unilateral control in contested Jerusalem appears a fallacy, in that its very “success” in creating urban conditions of domination and subjugation leads to an urban and regional instability that is corrosive of Israel’s genuine control of the city.

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Scott A. Bollens, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of California, Irvine, studies ethnically divided cities and the role of urban policy makers in these contested regions. He is author of Urban Peace-Building in Divided Societies: Belfast and Johannesburg (Westview Press, 1999) and On Narrow Ground: Urban Policy and Ethnic Conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast (SUNY Press). He can be reached at

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